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The Best Valentine’s Gift for the Deployed: Communication

By Christine Cioppa

You’ve sent your care package with loads of necessities, reading materials, pictures, and goodies, including those cookies he loves to share with his friends.

What else can you do to help keep the love alive in your marriage during deployment?

On this Valentine’s Day, whether you’re getting some “face-to-face” time virtually or exchanging emails, Mary C. Curran, PhD, ABPP, licensed clinical psychologist and practitioner at Avera Medical Group Behavioral Health, explains what type of communication you need to help keep your marriage healthy.

“It is a difficult thing because the person who is deployed doesn’t want to complain and neither does the spouse who is left,” Curran says. “And so what you are dealing with is superficial exchanges. And both of them are expecting something more real. But, you probably don't want the person in the military describing all the scary things he is seeing because it just causes the spouse to be anxious. And it is not helpful either for the spouse at home to go into great detail about all the problems that are going on there.”

So, instead of talking about the fact that the washing machine has just broken down and the kids aren’t behaving or the car is dead and stuff like that, Curran suggests keeping the conversation positive and upbeat. And if there are problems in the relationship, then work on that later when your loved one returns home, perhaps with couples’ counseling.

It’s not just negativity that should be avoided. Sometimes being upbeat about all the great things you’ll do together when he gets home hits a nerve.

“I see them after they come back. What I hear is that the wife has no understanding… and he doesn’t want to share it,” Curran says. Also, what she hears is that some of them don’t like the spouse talking about and dreaming of what they are going to do together when the deployed spouse gets back. “So, to say, ‘we’ll go dancing’ or ‘we’ll have a big party’ or things like that probably isn’t that helpful.”

Curran also finds that some military members, when they are away, come back and just want to be alone.

“They could have been deployed three or four times and have post-traumatic stress disorder after the first one and they haven’t talked to anybody because they are in the military for 20 years and they want to stay there. And when one or the other is experiencing post-traumatic stress or other kinds of things that they can’t talk about or won’t talk about, you automatically have problems with communication,” she says.

Instead of complaining or discussing what you’ll do when he’s back home, Curran suggests steering conversations toward what’s happening in your life and in the kids’ lives, if you have kids. “The spouse that is away is missing out on all the growth spurts from the children, the accomplishments in school, and the friends that they have.”

It’s also important for each of you to talk about who you are hanging out with.

“What I hear when they come back is that the spouse that is deployed sees the military as his family. So he comes back and the [other] spouse doesn’t know who these people are, and doesn’t know anything about them. I think sharing about friendships and relationships is important so that when they do come back together there isn’t this big void of people that the spouse that was deployed knows. It is the sharing of the daily relationships more than the daily terror,” she says.

That’s not to say you should avoid addressing these stressors and burdens of your individual lives indefinitely. You can share it. 

“You do that when you’re together. And when you are apart, and you talk to each other, you keep it positive. ‘I love you,’ ‘I miss you,’ ‘This is what is going on in my life,’ ‘This is kind of what is going on,’ ‘These are the people I’m with’,” Curran says.

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